He literally came out of nowhere (because Peter Laviolette buried him on the bench) after the Flyers acquired him from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for unlamented defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen on February 6, 2010.
But Ville Leino exploded during that memorable playoff run two years ago, turning the NHL on its ear and tying Minnesota’s Dino Ciccarelli for the highest point total by a rookie in the Stanley Cup playoffs with 21 (7G, 14A) in just 19 games as Philly came up short against Chicago.
He continued to make the opposition take notice with a 19-goal, 54-point campaign last year that included a thrilling overtime winner to save the Orange and Black’s season at Buffalo on Easter Sunday in Game 6 of the opening round.
But the 27-year-old Finn saw his chance to grab the spotlight and Steve Miller’d the organ-eye-zation, signing on with the Sabres last Summer for a hefty $27 million over six years.
What followed hasn’t been close to expectations: four goals, 15 points in 45 games on an injury-ravaged and under-performing roster.
Nonetheless, Leino paused to reflect on his time with the Flyers, in anticipation of the Sabres’ return on Thursday night for the first time since dropping an Eastern Conference Semifinal Game 7 last April.
“The first time is always a unique experience,” said Leino in an interview released on the Sabres’ web site late Wednesday. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like; I’m just going to harness the energy. It’s a great environment to play a hockey game, the fans are loud.
“It’s a lot of fun playing in Philly, whether you’re on the road or the home team. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s always nice to play in a loud building; it gets you ready. You don’t really have to push yourself too much.”
Leino spent all of 124 games here (94 regular-season appearances) but he’s cemented in team lore as an unexpected on-ice leader who emerged in a time the club needed his skill and speed the most.
“There’s a lot of people I know, a lot of feelings, a lot of good memories. We were doing pretty good when I was there so there’s a lot of good memories. I’m sure that it’s going to be a little bit emotional but it’ll be nice to see the people around the rink again.”
Here are a few of those memories. First, in the Eastern Finals against Montreal:
And then against Chicago:
The guy was just aces, always seemed to be in the right place at the right time (except for that helicopter job by Brian Campbell). It was a performance with few peers in the long and storied playoff history of the franchise, sadly destined never to come from him again.
And even though Leino’s departure was but one during the surprising roster upheaval, he still thinks that the ethos and chemistry wasn’t significantly altered.
“They still play the same way – hit hard, skate hard, try to win a lot of battles. It’s still pretty much a similar team, with the same coaching.”
One other thing he thinks won’t change will be the crowd reaction when he steps onto the ice as the enemy.
“I was pretty good with fans there so I hope they’ll be good. But who knows, we’ll see tomorrow. It’ll be fun anyways.”
With the front office’s penchant for bringing back certain talents, is it out of the question that Paul Holmgren told him “Ville, dontcha lose my number” before he headed up to Western New York?